Archives For protest

By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts. 

Minutes ago I finished the wonderful book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. The book examines the migration of Black U.S. citizens from the South to northern and western cities between 1915 and 1970. It’s one of the most rich, involving, relevant, scholarly, and smooth-reading non-fiction books I’ve read, possibly ever.

This post opens with the closing sentences of the epilogue from Other Suns. Before I go further, I need to honor Wilkerson, this book, and the lives of close-to six million Black people it chronicles. Thank you.

As an author–an artist of written English–Wilkerson’s words stuck me deeply, like deeply, because of their immediate, contemporary relevance. With tremendous respect to her and those she was writing about, I’d like to rearrange them a little here:

“By their actions, they willed into being a definition of the American Dream of their own choosing. They declared themselves the Americans they had always been deep within their hearts.”

Ponder this for a moment? As if you were one of the “their” and “they” referred to.

So the quote from Other Suns reminded me of this declaration:

The world is full of intellectuals, but it is in need of reckless imagination.

It was made by Pastor Michael Walrond (“Pastor Mike”) of Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church during a keynote he gave at a Theatre Communications Group convening in 2015.

It was part of larger speech about artists being “cultural architects” positioned to “help people learn to see the best in themselves and help them see the power in who they are.” Cultural architects can help “reimagine this world and trust me, I tell people all the time, the wounded soul of this world is groaning for more creative beings”

Ponder this for a moment? In light of my rearranging of Wilkerson’s words.

Increasingly over the last year and half, more United States residents are experiencing feelings of dissatisfaction, betrayal, rage, confusion, discomfort, and, most importantly, a need to do something. An internal need to act.

And there’s been platforms and opportunities like Shaun King’s Injustice Boycott, Van Jones’ Love Army, the Women’s March, and the amazing Safety Pin Box through which people can take actions of all sizes and durations.

On an individual level, people are also seeking out more meaningful conversations with others that bridge rather than cleave. Worldview-expanding dialogue is happening more at the water-cooler, in coffeeshops, in our homes, and, yes, even on Facebook than before. People are seeking to square the country they thought they were living in, with the one they appear to be (or, let’s face it, are) living in, with the citizen they want to be.

Who is supporting the shaping of a definition of the American Dream of the people’s choosing? Who brings people in communion so they can investigate this “thing” that is deep within their own hearts? Who has the tools to foster the shaping and transmitting of declarations of what it means to be American? In a world full of intellectuals, who is fueling and compelling us forward with reckless imagination?

Artists.

Art.

Art connects people. Art highlights the vibrancy of our cities. Artists can and should play an integral role within their home communities and the country at large. Artists have the power to convene. The power to imagine-with. The power to rally, support, and advance.

The American deep within my heart is one who believes that art saves lives. It believes we should call forth artists, evoke the service of art; maybe even demand it.

The American deep within my heart believes our country should support the arts and humanities. Because we need it more than ever.

IMG_4440.PNG


For talking points about how to talk about saving the NEA, go no further than “How to Talk about Saving the NEA” by the brilliant Margy Waller.

Or, if you must go the TL;DR rout, here are bullet points of the article distilled by Jamie Bennett on Facebook:

  • We face challenges in part because there is a widely held view of the arts as something other people enjoy-especially rich, older, white people. And if that’s the case, it’s hard for people to see why the arts should benefit from public funding. So when our messengers are heads of major arts organizations housed in the intimidating temples of architecture in major cities, we trigger thinking of the arts as something for the elite. This isn’t true and it undermines our efforts to change the landscape of public understanding, build new supporters, and create political space for decision-makers.
  • When advocates talk about art as a transcendent experience, important to well-being, a universal human need, etc., they are reinforcing a focus on private, individual concerns, not public, communal concerns. While many people like these messages, the messages don’t help them think of art as a contributor to community quality of life.
  • A thriving arts sector creates ripple effects of benefits throughout our community, even for those who don’t attend.
  • People already believe these benefits exist – they don’t need studies or new data to get it. It’s just not the first thing they think about when they hear us talking about the arts. Our messages can build support by reminding people that they value the way the arts strengthen places and bring people together.
  • We can’t say the sky is falling-that undermines our efforts because most people won’t agree with us. We should advocate for good policy on immigration and health care, etc. because these changes could be incredibly devastating to the arts, artists and the communities where they live. *It’s not responsible to fight only for the NEA budget in the face of other damaging proposals.*

watchman-train

Looking back, it was hardly coincidental that I picked up Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman shortly after DJT was elected to office. It was clearly the catalyst for my first steps of in-the-home activism.

atticus-finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird

Watchman takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout—now called Jean Louise—returns to her hometown of Maycomb, GA from New York City where she’s been living and working. She discovers [SPOILER ALERT] that her father, Atticus Finch, is not the morally upstanding, liberal-leaning, “everyone is equal” touting man she thought he was. Instead we learn that Atticus is in fact a more complex person, a more realistic character; we learn Atticus is a White man in a position of power attempting to maintain the status quo of White Supremacy in Maycomb.

(Slight divergence: Jean Louise’s recognition of Atticus’ true and full self instantly reminded me of my various “awakening” moments to systemic racism and other forms of oppression over the course of my life this far.)

It’s revealed in Watchman that Jean Louise escaped to New York City. She fled the tight confines of Maycomb and the South: those confines that she could see or feel directly. Despite being reared in the Deep South, Jean Louise was raised “color blind” (and thought her father was as well). She was “woke” to gender, race, and class prejudice and would bluntly call it out, but she was “blind” to structural oppression and participated in upholding it—as most citizens did and do on a daily basis. Other than railing against Maycomb citizens (royally pissing them off) and family members (hurting their feelings) Jean Louise takes little action to effect change. She kicks up dirt and runs away, again and again.

Finally, at the end of the novel her Uncle Jack asks

“Jean Louise, have you ever thought about coming home?….You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”…. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”

She started the car and backed down the driveway. She said, “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”

“I don’t mean fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”

“Uncle Jack, I can’t live in a place that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t agree with me.”

It’s the next part that got me:

“…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right—”

“I mean it takes a certain maturity to live in the South these days. You don’t have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it. You haven’t the humbleness of mind—”

“I thought fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom.”

“It’s the same thing. Humility.”

I came to understand that the rail-and-run technique was personally and professionally ineffectual about a year and a half ago. I paid a price for it, and have worked against feelings of self-righteous motivated activist since. But what I hadn’t done was gone home and sought to engage my family members. I had not yet tried to humbly interact with their true and full selves around the topic of race and our Whiteness.

Luckily, I these conversations were happening with my husband. So I asked if he would be open to gifting ) Robin DiAngelo’s book What does it mean to be White? to the four households in our immediate family (my parents; my sister and her partner; my mother-in-law; my brother- and sister-in-law). He agreed.

When holiday time came, each book was accompanied by a letter (the text of which I included at the bottom of this post). We asked that family members “exchange with us the gift of conversation around [the book’s] contents in the coming months.”

I can report that the books were received well and some family members have started reading them. I’ve already had more nuanced conversations with my parents—one of which hasn’t started the book—about race and Whiteness in 2017 than I have in my life. My husband reported having at least one reflective conversation with his mother, who I believe hadn’t started the book at that time but has as of today.

There are many action steps I’m being encouraged to follow and public places I can convene in to demonstrate my dissent with the current administration, its actions thus far, and what I/we assume will be its actions moving forward. I propose, like Uncle Jack, considering dialogue in the home as well. The Powers That Be run strong, deep, and silent. Examining them openly as a family might be one of the cornerstones of change for the future.


Dear ____name____:

This holiday season, we want to share with you the gift of the book What does it mean to be White? and ask that you exchange with us the gift of conversation around its contents in the coming months.

Our lives are gifted with abundance. We have loving parents, siblings, siblings-in-law, a beautiful niece, and cuddly pets. All of us have places to live. We are all employed and/or have the means to eat, be clean and clothed, transport ourselves places, and maintain our health. We have strong support networks.

It is because our lives are gifted with abundance, with privilege, that we don’t want to take this for granted. We want to actively be responsible citizens at the national level, local level, and family level.

We’re all White and we live in an increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country. This past year, we’ve clearly seen how deeply racism still runs in this country. And this past year has forced us to confront the reality that we (personally) aren’t addressing racism, our White identity, and Whiteness in all the ways we could be.

We want to talk with you about these highly important topics. We see this book as a way to begin to have the conversation. And maybe, this way, we can work toward effecting positive change in our country (and the world) by starting in our homes.

We love you all very much.

Seems par for the course that I would start out 2015 blogging about the use of jargon-y words and then jump right in the following week using words like “meme-ification” and “authenticity” and referencing “Walter Benjamin” (pronounced Ben-ya-mean because, of course, Germany,) but here goes nothing.

I had never heard of #BlackBrunch until someone brought it up in the office the other day. This particular form of protest is simple, non-violent, and (I think) packs a punch. A group of African American protesters walk into a restaurant during peak brunch hours and read off the names of victims of police brutality, those we’ve heard of before and those we haven’t. In between each name, the group will say “ashe” (ah-SHAY), a Yoruba term that translates loosely as “amen” or “so be it.” They then called on patrons to stand in solidarity (to varying degrees of success, I imagine). This ritual from start to finish takes four-and-a-half minutes; this time is specific to reflect that Michael Brown’s body was left on the street for four-and-a-half hours in Ferguson, MI.*

This phenomenon appears to have started in either Oakland, CA or New York City, NY — which came first is unclear and probably not important. What is of note is that due to Twitter presence, this #BlackBrunch protest/ritual has been copied, even “gone viral” (the byline that the LA Times wants you to tweet out) and has already been seen in DC, as my friend was explaining.

The conversation that ensued in the office became one about authenticity. When an act of protest like that is replicated so many times, does it reach the intent of the proto-action, the very first time it was enacted? Does it echo it? Does it honor it?

One hand of the argument would say it doesn’t, and with each imitation it loses a level of sophistication, the complexity involved with the action itself. Like taking a picture of the Mona Lisa, which will not, and never be, the real live Mona Lisa with its two-hundred-plus year old paint on canvas and dust and all of that.

The other hand of the argument would say it does and it can.

I managed to catch the end of a morning program on NPR, listening to some folks talk about Hashtag Activism, which I feel like is coming up more and more in conversation as of late with #JeSuisCharlie — the women on this program were speaking specifically on the tag #BringBackOurGirls. “What is hashtag activism really doing?” the host inquires. It is no surprise that a hashtag won’t make the Boko Haram return kidnapped young girls, but it will, one expert mentioned, “make (Boko Haram) a name that can be said in households.” It raises consciousness.

Meme-ification has its perks. It means that the thing (the idea, behavior, or style [x]) being replicated or imitated can easily be replicated, and therefore has a shot at becoming a widely adopted belief.

This idea of meme-ification got me thinking on the subject of authenticity and art, which I explored a lot in a Visual Anthropology course in undergrad. We read “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin (remember: Ben-yah-mean) which you are welcome to read all of here if you have an afternoon.

So, following the logic that ritual is the root of performance, which would then make the #BlackBrunch protest a kind of art…. what would our BFF Benjamin have to say about meme-ification of protests/rituals like #BlackBrunch?

In this article, Benjamin’s big theory is, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” I’m just going to include this excerpt from section two of this essay for you:

“The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated… In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.”

He goes on to refer to this sensitive authenticity nucleus as an art object’s “aura.”

So it sounds like #BlackBrunch is screwed, right? “…the historical testimony rests on the authenticity (…) what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” Yikes. Authority jeopardized doesn’t sound great. Until he starts talking about performance.

Describing the reproduction of an actor’s performance in film (which to him, film is one big mechanical reproduction) he sums it up:

“This situation might also be characterized as follows: for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it.

Okay, so, “aura” tied to the “sensitive nucleus” of authenticity… this could then substantiate an argument that #BlackBrunch is an authentic, meaningful form of protest, yeah? I think Benjamin would agree (and Brecht would probably love it too, as a concept.)

I think I land on the side of Benjamin here. As long as live human beings are connected to the center of the protest, they will be authentic. They will be heard, even if they are dismissed, ignored, or stood up with in solidarity. I think as far as non-violent and meaningful protests go, this one is beautiful.

*Thanks LA Times for breaking down what happens during #BlackBrunch so simply, since I’ve not witnessed it yet myself. You can read their article here.

 

Melanie Harker is a conspirator with dog & pony dc, as well as Rachel Grossman’s sidekick. You can see her musings @MelanieGwynne on twitter.